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Martha Stiles, the Hero Drummer Boy of Lookout Mountain

There may have been a Union Army drummer boy of Lookout Mountain, but it wasn't Martha Stiles.

Lookout Mountain certainly was the site of a fierce 1863 Civil War battle in Tennessee. But why did thousands of Americans think Martha Stiles was its hero?

The short answer: Martha Stiles said so as part of her many entertaining swindles.

Martha Stiles

Martha Stiles was born in 1848 in Amherst, N.H., and raised in Amherst and Nashua. At age 17 she found her voice – as a temperance speaker. For much of the 1870s she traveled the United States delivering her anti-alcohol lectures, “The Prodigal Son” and “The National Evil.”

She visited churches, community halls and Grand Army of the Republic lodges. At these temperance speeches she began inventing a history for herself.

As a girl, she said, she volunteered for the 27th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a drummer boy. She changed the name she used, sometimes saying she enlisted as Tom Smith. Other times, Homer Woodworth.

As the drummer boy, she was captured at the Second Battle of Bull Run, she told crowds, and was exchanged for rebel prisoners. Later, at Lookout Mountain, confederates shot her, and her masquerade discovered while she recovered at a hospital.

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Battle of Lookout Mountain

Martha Stiles’ story didn’t mesh, but she pulled it off for years during the 1870s and 1880s while traveling the country. She moved largely through the west and southwest where she wasn’t likely to run into many veterans from the Massachusetts 27th.

Many Husbands

Over the years, Martha Stiles went through three husbands – which gave her a convenient excuse to change her name as she moved from town to town. That  helped Martha and her husbands because they had a habit of running up bills they couldn’t pay. She’d borrow money from locals when she arrived in a town and leave before they could collect.

At one stop in New Orleans in 1882 Martha’s past nearly caught up with her. Police arrested her for debts left behind in Colorado, but the governor of Louisiana refused extradition.

Through the mid-1880s, Martha Stiles grew bolder in her act. She donned a soldier’s hat and played a drum as part of her show. She recited patriotic poems, such as Ode to the American Flag. Sometimes she rode in parades and claimed to be a granddaughter of Winfield Scott. She even claimed to be the soldier who delivered President Lincoln's pardon that spared the life of Vermont’s Sleeping Sentinel, William Scott.

Part of Stiles’ success was based on the public’s affection for drummer boys, heroic children soldiers. Tales of their adventures and bravery were often embroidered and magnified for entertainment.

But another part of Stiles’ success relied on the powerful effect she had on the men she encountered. Newspapermen fell over themselves to promote the hero-soldier-girl. Men loaned her money freely.

Salt Lake

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General Richard Busteed and a Civil War Drummer Boy. (Library of Congress)

In an 1884 visit to Salt Lake, she pulled a fire alarm at her hotel. When the firemen arrived she explained she thought the alarm-pull was to summon hotel staff. She only wanted a box of oranges, she said.

The firemen scrambled to get them for her.

When Martha Stiles left Salt Lake unexpectedly, eager young men inundated the newspaper asking where she (and probably their money) had gone.

By this time she was traveling as Kate Clayton, (a name from a prior husband). But her scam was getting harder to pull off. Upon arriving in a town, a news clipping would greet her that detailed her past and charged her with fraud.

Sometimes she brazened it out, daring anyone to prove her wrong. Other times she just quietly moved on.

A New Game

In May of 1884, she kicked her game up to a new level. She met Edwin Robbins Howe, husband number three, on her travels – probably in New Orleans.

Howe was a civil engineer of limited capacity, but he had an alumni directory that told the history of all his chums from the Harvard Class of 1864. Howe commonly hit up his school pals for a loan, and his friends didn’t seem to mind. They knew Howe had little by way of family money.

But once Howe teamed up with Martha Stiles, she immediately saw the potential in stepping up his efforts to extract money from his old buddies. They would arrive in a new town and immediately seek out Howe’s friends, using the directory, and collect as much as they could.

Sometime Edwin would take the lead. Other times Martha would seek out help, explaining that she was passing through. She had fallen victim to a thief, she would say, or lost her money. Edwin would certainly repay the loan, she assured the men.

By 1894, Harvard’s brightest and best were catching on. Comparing notes, the men realized they were being taken, and they had Edwin arrested in Chicago. Martha Stiles slipped the noose and remained at large while headlines told of the Harvard man run amok. Edwin’s friends, however, thought they knew the real truth.

Poor Edwin Howe

A school friend recalled Edwin:

“As a man he was gentlemanly, and instead of being shrewd mentally was, if anything, rather soft without of course being foolish . . .  he was entertaining, but not quick.

“We heard of the marriage here and also learned that the woman of his choice was not everything she might have been. If there is anything in this trouble he is in now, I’ll wager that she is the one that is to blame. He is not a swindler in my opinion.”

Connecticut Arrest

A new group of victims emerged that summer in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. A group of Yale alumni reported they were swindled by a woman played on their sympathies.

Martha had simply taken the Harvard scheme to a different circle of alumni. She was raising money, police theorized, to pay for Edwin’s defense.

In August of 1894, the police chief in Hartford, Conn., received a disturbing tip: Martha Stiles Howe had come to town. She was traveling under the name Robbins and staying at the Heublein Hotel.

Police summoned her to the lobby. Martha Stiles made one try to get away, claiming illness and needing to briefly return to her room. But police took her to jail, instead.

And that ended the career of Martha Stiles, famous Drummer Boy of Lookout Mountain. She served two years in prison and reportedly reunited with Edwin. She spent her remaining years under the care of her family.

This story was updated in 2017. 

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